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The Humanities and the Public

An event the other night at McGill called “The Public Digital Humanities” was indicative of much recent concern about the “relevance” or public mission of the humanities today (see for example the new initiative 4Humanities or the new book series by Iowa, “Humanities and Public Life”). Publicness, it seems, is the solution du jour for the longstanding sense of crisis facing the humanities.

I’ve written something on this over at our new CiteLab, but I thought it was worth revisiting here in a different context. My concerns about the appeal to publicness as a solution to what ails the humanities are two-fold: not only does it not really answer the question “what for” (being “public” or just “publishing” strike me as not terribly persuasive missions, especially since we have been doing this all along). It also rests on a fantasy of immediacy, that research can be public, open, accessible, and therefore instantly consumable. This seems to distort the unique nature of humanistic inquiry, which is anything but immediate. It takes time, both to produce and to digest. It requires long years of training. If we want something more immediate, then we are saying we do not want the kind of thinking that belongs to the humanities.

I think it is important to free ourselves from myths of access and immediacy these days and be more forthright about the different nature of what it is we do. We don’t need to be hermetic or a counter-public, the other traditional way of thinking about the humanities (the myth of the ivory tower — whither ivory?). But I do think we need to preserve our asynchrony as one of the most important features of the nature of humanistic knowledge. Humanistic knowledge is relevant because it is highly mediated to the everyday. It stands between different social poles and publics, tangential but never entirely ¬†subsumable by more commercial forms of circulation.

And I think the value of looking at the problem in this way is that it helps to unify academic inquiry more broadly. It preserves a common mission to the university as a distinct social instutition — it serves the public by not being entirely of the public. I realize that this is a politically complicated message, but it is crucial. Otherwise we begin the descent towards a radically different way of working, which will look either like the popular press or corporate R&D that tries to solve today’s problems at the expense of tomorrow’s. Our timelines are different and that difference is our value.

This last point is also important as we think about the technologies of humanistic inquiry. If digital forms of reading might be very good at helping our work become more timely, books are important because of their untimeliness. They preserve this sense of what I’m calling “quasi-publicness.” They are available, but slightly out of sync. I think our investment in digital humanities needs to preserve some of this sense of public mediacy (and the technologies that make it possible),¬†rather than just appeal to publicness itself.